War history leaves questions unanswered
IN all the millions of words and pages that have been written about wars in recent decades, relatively little attention has been paid to the stories of soldiers who ran away rather than facing the enemy in mortal combat.
American TV and print journalist Charles Glass has chosen to mine this topic in some detail in The Deserters, which focuses mostly on men who went “over the hill” in the Second World War.
He covers a lot of interesting ground, but ultimately many readers will be left with more questions than answers. Canada, which contributed more per capita to the Allied war effort than almost any other nation, is mostly missing in action in this book.
Close to 100,000 British servicemen deserted in the Second World War, and almost 50,000 Americans. Glass makes no mention of Canadian numbers, and they are not easy to find.
For those who are interested, one Canadian soldier was executed for desertion in the war. Pte. Harold Joseph Pringle was shot by a firing squad in Italy on July 5, 1945.
Glass does include, complete with photos, the story of Pte. Eddie Slovik, the only American to be killed by the state as a deserter in all the years following the Civil War of the 1860s.
Hundreds of Americans were condemned to death for desertion in that lengthy period, but all were spared by their president, Woodrow Wilson in the First World War and Franklin Rooseevelt in the second.
Another detail, not in the book, 23 Canadian deserters were executed in the first war. In 2001, when Winnipeg’s Ron Duhamel was minister of Veterans Affairs, all 23 were formally pardoned by the Government of Canada. It was a move that was supported unanimously by all members of Parliament.
Glass has chosen to focus on the individual stories of three men who deserted, two Americans and one British soldier. Their stories are quite different, and all are quite compelling in their own way. His most detailed portrait is that of Pte. Steve Weiss, an underage Brooklyn lad who forced his father to sign his enlistment papers.
Weiss is still alive, and he and Glass have become friends. He served with distinction and valour in combat, both in Italy and in France. But eventually he cracked under pressure, and he deserted more than once.
Weiss went into hiding in France, helped by members of the Resistance. He later helped the French in their efforts before the country was liberated from German occupation.
Weiss became a psychologist and helped in efforts to deal with service personnel who were afflicted with what we now refer to as post-traumatic stress disorder. In the first war, the term was “shell shock.” In the second war, it became known as “battle fatigue.”
To military leaders like U.S. Gen. George S. Patton, whatever you called it, the soldiers who suffered from it were nothing but cowards who deserved to pay the ultimate price.
At the time, Patton’s view was undoubtedly shared by a majority of Americans, most of whom never fought in uniform, and desertion continued to be one of the hidden stories of war. This was probably the case until Vietnam, when thousands of Americans deserted or left the U.S. rather than being drafted into the military.
Perhaps the most compelling part of The Deserters is the 20-page introduction where Glass neatly summarizes some of the colourful history, like the fact that author Mark Twain managed to desert from both sides in the American Civil War.
He also suggests that cowardice is far less of a cause of desertion than bad management of manpower or the shear drudgery of life in the military.